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Physics | Faculty Research

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Physics department faculty research encompasses the following areas:

Please click on faculty names below to see more detailed profiles.

Astrophysics

U.J. Sofia

U.J. Sofia’s research is divided into two main areas: interstellar dust and the sun. Interstellar dust is the term for tiny solid particles that exists between stars. This material alters light traveling through it, so our view of the distant universe is distorted. Sofia uses data primarily from the Hubble Space Telescope to explore the physical and chemical compositions of dust with the goal of correcting astronomical observations for dust’s effects. Sofia’s interest in the sun is linked to global climate change. He uses the balloon-borne Solar Disk Sextant experiment to study size variations of the sun to see how it changes on timescales relevant to climate. Size variations can change the amount of energy received by the earth, which must be well understood before we can fully know the effects of carbon loading (CO2 emissions) in the atmosphere. 

 

Latest EIT

Jessica Uscinski

Jessica Uscinski's research has primarily involved investigating the consequences of physics beyond the standard model (e.g. supersymmetry) in astrophysics experiments. Since coming to AU, her research interests have expanded to include topics in physics education research that focuses on assessment of student learning in modern physics. She is also working on applying quantum mechanics to solving problems in atomic physics.

 

 

Gravitational Physics

Gregg Harry

Gregg Harry’s research is on gravitational wave astronomy, the experimental effort to directly measure Einstein's prediction that there should be waves of gravity coming from massive astronomical objects like black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, and the Big Bang. He works as part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration which operates three 2.5 mile long laser detectors that are designed to be sensitive to these gravitational waves. Harry’s laboratory research at AU consists of developing improved optical coatings that can be used on the mirrors of these detectors. The coatings are what reflect the laser back after they have traveled out the 2.5 miles, so they are crucial to the performance and sensitivity of the LIGO detectors. Harry is also interested in using LIGO data to search for gravitational wave signals that may be left over from the Big Bang as a way to study the very early history of the universe.

 

Physics Education

Physics prof Teresa Larkin and students

Teresa Larkin

Teresa Larkin’s research involves many aspects of the assessment of student learning in physics and engineering. Through research in physics education she studies how student scientific writing can be used as a learning and assessment tool. A significant component of her research provides a basis for understanding how students learn physics. Her studies pay particular attention to a population of students widely underserved in the research literature, namely, non-majors. Embedded within this research she studies how the development of interactive engagement (IE) learning tools and methods can lead to student learning gains in physics. These IE methods, coupled with an assessment plan that includes a robust writing component, provide a deeper understanding of how non-majors think about, learn, and process topics in physics. Her work is enhanced through the formal assessment and understanding of individual styles of learning. Larkin’s research incorporates an analysis of how the assessment of student learning in physics and engineering may be influenced by gender. Her physics and engineering background provides a unique opportunity for her research to reach and be influenced by the broader STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) communities.

 

Quantum Physics

Quantam physics figure

Nate Harshman

Nate Harshman works in the field of quantum information theory and studies how systems of interacting particles like atoms and photons store and process physical information. In particular, the rules of quantum mechanics allow for interacting particles to develop a property called entanglement, and this entanglement can create strong correlations between distant systems and can be exploited as a resource for quantum teleportation and quantum encryption. Harshman uses symmetry techniques such as representation theory to describe and quantify entanglement in particle systems. Recently, he has studied entanglement in two-particle elastic scattering and in harmonic bound states and he has found that understanding entanglement in interacting, few-body systems provides fresh insight into fundamental questions about particle dynamics and quantum information. More broadly, he is interested in the relative nature of entanglement and how the symmetries of space-time and the structure of interactions determine preferred observables for measurement and calculation for quantum systems.

 

Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson is studying and developing ways to control the quantum mechanical world. Much of his research focuses on the physics of ultracold atoms cooled by lasers to near absolute zero temperature. One current research project is investigating how to use arrays of ultracold atoms suspended in crystals of light, called optical lattices, to create new kinds of super-sensitive quantum detectors or sensors. Johnson is also developing new theoretical ideas, mathematical techniques, and high-powered computer simulations to understand the behavior of smaller systems with just a few trapped ultracold particles. This research is applying ideas from high-energy particle physics to better understand how the universe works at the lowest energy scales. This work should have applications ranging from developing novel quantum technologies to ultracold chemistry (and maybe even ultracold cosmology). In addition to current funding from the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation, Johnson’s research has also received funding from the Research Corporation and NASA.


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